17 Sept 2016
From the town of Aspen we followed Castle Creek up the valley, past Ashcroft and bearing right onto Pearl Pass Road. We kept going beyond the bridge (not for the feint of heart) and set up camp where Pearl Pass Road takes a left and the road to Castle & Conundrum goes to the right. The next morning we saw a few campsites further up, but this was plenty far for us. And we had a wonderful view looking down Castle Creek Valley. I’d timed this for the high aspens and they didn’t disappoint.
We walked up the Jeep road around dawn, and stayed in shadow of a ridge for almost the first 1,000 feet. Like Mount Antero, the mountain had a road and a parking area at 13,000′. But here everything not the road is designated a wilderness area so it remained mostly quiet.
When you reach the parking area the fun begins. You see the Montezuma Basin before you, with Castle Peak on the left and Conundrum behind a ridge on the right. We went far to the left because we saw some cairns that way, but should’ve just gone straight. But it really didn’t matter, and after walking on the road the rock scramble felt like a worthy challenge. Shortly we caught the more regularly cairned gully slicing up the basin. Then caught the trail heading to the northeast ridge that began to give better views. By now we could see Conundrum, the wide basin with its snow field, and the small ice-filled lake in the middle.
The climb on the northeast ridge up to Castle was really interesting and challenging. The ice in the shadows, however, made it a bit unnerving for me on one or two occasions.
The summit of Castle Peak has the colorful Elk Range laid out before you and the birds-eye view of the Montezuma Basin.
The trail was steep going down to the saddle ridge. We passed the route we were taking down marked by rust-colored rock, then started up to Conundrum.
Conundrum has two peaks, and even though it’s not an official 14er you still have to do it right. So after getting atop the north peak, we descend-ascended the south one as well.
I preferred the views from Conundrum over Castle. The light was better and it had an unobstructed view of the maroon Maroon Bells.
After tea for H and more summit whiskey for me (hey, there were two summits) we retraced out steps down Conundrum then continued down directly into the basin and towards the lake. The crumbly rock made the descent more of a slide than a controlled downclimb, but soon enough we reached the flatter and rockier section that eventually took us back to the Jeep road.
The roadwalking down was unremarkable save for the golden splashes of aspen trees.
After packing up camp, we drive down the Castle Creek valley through Aspen and up the Maroon Creek valley to camp at Silver Queen campground.
This was an excellent climb, second only to Blanca-Ellingwood. I could have done without the road, but once beyond it the trail was challenging and the views were outstanding. A helmet wouldn’t be a bad idea. We didn’t wear them, but there’s enough crumbly rocks with climbers above you that I would have felt better wearing one.
- When: 17 Sept 2016
- Distance: 7 mi RT
- Net Elevation: 3,105′
- Total Elevation: 3,429′
- Time to Summit: 4:00 hrs
- Total Time: 7:45 hrs
- Colo 14er Rank: #12
- Summit Whiskey: Laws Whiskey House – Secale Straight Rye